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Dave Scheiber
August 03, 1987
With Vinny Testaverde at the helm, Tampa Bay hopes to improve its NFL fortunes
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August 03, 1987

Vinny's Ship Has Come In

With Vinny Testaverde at the helm, Tampa Bay hopes to improve its NFL fortunes

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Summer storm clouds were rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico, but there was still enough time for the rookie skipper to take a spin on Tampa Bay in his new, $150,000 Wellcraft Scarab. The sleek powerboat looked as if it had just veered off the set of Miami Vice, except for a paint job heavy on Buccaneer orange and white, a big NO. 14 on the hull—and a far different kind of Miami hero at the helm.

Forget Don Johnson. Vinny Testaverde, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' designated savior, slowly guided his 34-foot dreamboat away from the marina dock near downtown St. Petersburg, studying the control panel and offering a cautious smile to a crew of family members and friends. An instructor sat behind him to offer advice.

But within moments Testaverde was in command, pounding the placid waters at 70 mph, circling, darting, weaving and then, with a surprisingly gentle touch, navigating the 840-horsepower craft back to port in time to beat the rain. "What a great feeling," he said, a broad grin crossing his well-tanned face. "I'm at the wheel of my own boat, with my own jersey number right on it. I can't help but think of all the good things that have happened to me."

Testaverde's joyride may have sputtered on Jan. 2 in the Fiesta Bowl, where Perm State upset the talented quarterback and his Miami Hurricanes to win the national championship. But the past four months have been like a cruise through paradise for the 23-year-old Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in this year's NFL draft. On April 2, Testaverde signed an $8.2 million, six-year contract with Tampa Bay. Then, three days before the April 28 draft, in his hometown of Elmont, N.Y., more than 5,000 residents and U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato turned out for a parade in Testaverde's honor. A banner still hangs over Elmont's main thoroughfare, proclaiming MAKING ELMONT PROUD: VINNY TESTAVERDE—1986 HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER.

His parents, Al and Josie, drive around Elmont in style. Testaverde purchased a black Lincoln Town Car for his dad and a gray Oldsmobile Ciera for his mother. "Hey, I owe so much to them," he says. "The money is mostly theirs, anyway. Without them I couldn't have gotten anything."

The rewards keep pouring in. Testaverde recently received a lucrative endorsement contract with GTE. Thanks to a deal with Chevrolet, he can tool around in a Corvette when he tires of tooling around in his Jaguar. However, one of the biggest payoffs to date didn't involve a nickel. The Beach Boys were in Tampa over the July 4th weekend for a concert, and they got word to the Bucs that they wanted to meet Testaverde. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "Here I am, having grown up listening to these guys, and they want to meet me."

So Testaverde and the aging surf singers got together at a hotel press conference the day before the show. The next afternoon came the tour de force. Call it Testaverde's first pressure performance at Tampa Stadium. Before 52,000 delighted fans the Beach Boys summoned Testaverde to the stage to sing backup on their golden oldie Barbara Ann.

"That was one of my favorite things ever in my life," he says. "They asked me at the press conference if I'd go along with it. So my friends and I went to the store, bought a Beach Boys tape and listened to it about 30 times. All I had to do was sing one word, 'Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-baraann.' But I have to admit, I'm not much of a singer."

He doesn't quite have sea legs either. But an endorsement deal with a bay area boat dealership got Testaverde his customized Wellcraft. "It's still a little tricky taking it out and docking, but I'm getting the hang of it," he says.

The $8.2 million question, of course, is how the mega-Buc passer will fare at the wheel of a franchise that has floundered through the last four NFL seasons with a combined record of 12-52. Three times a playoff team between 1979 and 1982, once, in January 1980, only 10 points from reaching the Super Bowl, the Buccaneers have returned to the murky seas of their 2-26 expansion era. The situation has gotten ugly: three 2-14 finishes since 1983, attendance nose-diving from 72,000-seat sellouts to lows of fewer than 30,000, paper bags covering the heads of fans and an unsurpassed reputation for futility.

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